In the 1950s, teachers led students through “duck and cover” drills designed to help them survive an atomic apocalypse. Students would sit under their desks, cover their heads, and wait for nuclear winter. It was commonly referred to as, “Put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye”, since the practice was likely to save less than 1% of students from an atomic blast.
I thought about those old photos when I conducted lockdown drills as a teacher. As I sat in the dark with my students behind a locked door, contemplating oblivion, I pondered a society that necessitated such exercises. In the 1950s, a beautiful weekday afternoon could be interrupted by mutually assured destruction-a nuclear war between superpowers. In 2016, it’s more likely to be interrupted by a lunatic without a country, armed with hatred and the weapons of war. Either agent produces the same effect for victims.
Is this progress?
It’s human nature to think that we’re living in terrible times. Oliver Burkeman in his book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, notes that Romans of 634BC thought that the city was on the brink of collapse, and Google manuscript searches of the phrase “these uncertain times” will yield dozens of results reaching back to the 17th Century.
We are accustomed to believing the world is crashing around us. Politicians like to remind us of that fact, especially during election years.
Is 2016 really that bad?
We don’t fear nuclear oblivion from the Soviets. Unemployment is below 5%. The DOW is surging. The globalized world has become a marketplace for jobs, ideas, and products. We have devices in our pocket that can access the wonders of the Information Age in under 3 seconds. In the 19th Century, it took fifty years for humanity to double its knowledge. Now it’s occurring approximately once every 13 months.
Medicine has made substantial improvements. Fatality rates of combat casualties during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are steady at 10%, compared with 16% in Vietnam or approximately 20% in World War II. Undergoing a coronary artery bypass surgery was a risky endeavor in the 1980s. Today the mortality rate is between 2%-3% . My uncle had a triple-bypass 2 months ago. He’s playing golf this weekend.
We’ve mapped the human genome, which promises cures for countless deadly diseases. A 2013 Cover of National Geographic made the bold promise that “This baby will live to be 120”. Given the exponential advances in science and medicine, one is inclined to believe them.
Violent crime is at its lowest level since 1978 and has been dropping steadily since 1994. On foreign battlefields, in surgical wings of hospitals, and on the streets of American cities, we have a lower probability of becoming a fatality than at any time in a generation.
If that’s the case, then why do we feel so damn scared all the time?
Part of the fear is rooted in the source of these advancements-information. The old adage of “If it bleeds, it leads” is intensified in a 24-hour news cycle. We are continuously bombarded by negative images of death and destruction, and then are told once more by political leaders that the Republic is going down in flames.
The randomness of death in the 21st Century can also aggravate feelings of fear. It brings little comfort to imagine living to the ripe old age of 120 if we can be gunned down by lunatics while watching a movie, dancing at a nightclub, eating a piece of cake in the meeting room of our workplace, or huddling with teachers in a 5th grade classroom.
What can we do about it? How do we restore hope in a brave new world of limitless technology, vast quantities of information, and ignorant hatred?
The answer is not, as one political candidate has advocated, banning Muslims from entering the country. The biggest danger to American security isn’t ISIS fanatics navigating a 2 year process to enter the United States as refugees. It’s disaffected youths becoming lone wolves and “self-radicalizing” by reading hate-filled propaganda for two months. Mr. Trump’s ban would not have stopped Omar Mateen. It is unlikely that creating a nationwide Muslim Registry would have done so either, although Trump has also made cryptic statements supporting such a measure. That would destroy 1st Amendment Freedoms before it would deter home-grown terrorism.
Calls for assault weapons bans and banning the sale of firearms and explosives to people on terrorist watch lists seem like common sense measures to deter violence. As Vice President Joe Biden recently stated, the government already limits 2nd amendment rights by refusing the sale of tanks, flamethrowers, and F-15s to private citizens. It also limits 1st amendment rights. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater or stroll naked through your city’s public schools. Even Ronald Reagan supported background checks and limitations on assault weapons. Why not add AR-15s and AK-47s to that list mentioned by Biden?
Such measures might be beneficial, but there are already more guns in the United States than people. If Omar Mateen couldn’t purchase his weapons legally, he likely would have found someone to get them for him, as San Bernardino shooter Syed Farook did in 2015.
The answers to these 21st Century problems are complicated. They’re not going to be resolved on CNN. They’ll be solved in the shadows.
Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley made a strong argument for increasing our capacity for human intelligence, remarks echoed by John Kasich later in the primary season. Such measures are more likely to bear fruit in the struggle against extremism than any campaign promise made by Donald Trump. ISIS wants an “us vs. them” holy war between the West and Muslims. It believes an Armageddon battle in its territory will lead to its eventual triumph and world domination.
To preclude that direct confrontation, ISIS should be destroyed by Americans skilled at indirect action. Human intelligence provides the targets, special forces conduct the operations, and cyber action devastates their capacity to reach young, vulnerable Americans on laptops and iPhones.
The Information Age provides the tools for Enlightenment as well as Entrenched Ignorance.
Omar Mateen wasn’t a devout Islamic fighter trained on the streets of Aleppo. He was an angry, insecure American youth with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and the desire to create mayhem in order to secure a place in history. His attacks are about followers-not faith. Image-not Islam. Selfies-not Sharia Law. Moments from death, holed up in that nightclub, he didn’t ask negotiators for an Imam. He was checking Facebook and searching for himself on Google.
These are the actions of an individual radicalized by hatred online and seeking personal attention through a despicable massacre.
We can’t win a conventional war against unconventional forces. In this fight, we don’t need armored divisions, we need Seal Teams. We don’t need Donald Trump; we need real-life versions of Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds.
We live in one of the most successful periods of American history. To secure our prosperity, we must confront our enemies in the shadows while simultaneously lifting up the Americans who have been left behind in an Information Age economy. That means supporting education, training technical operatives to fight America’s enemies online, and killing ISIS’s leaders in bathrooms rather than on battlefields.
Duck and Cover drills were largely forgotten by 1975. It is my fervent hope that active shooter drills will also become an antiquated part of American history. To get there, we need smart, unified leadership. We need to abandon the hateful rhetoric of our past and concentrate on our future.
That future is brighter than it appears. Let’s work together to secure it.